Renaming street carries deep meaning for longtime Veterans Memorial Park advocate

It’s only changing the name of a street.

But what has gone into changing Greenway Street to Veterans Parkway — and the significance of the change — runs deeper.

For years, Phil Blake, who is the unofficial caretaker of Wichita’s veteran memorials, had lobbied city officials to change the name because the street — a short, winding road by the Arkansas River that connects Central and Second — runs past Veterans Memorial Park.

Much of that effort came while he was spending a decade cleaning up the city-owned park after years of neglect and working to put a World War II memorial in it. The memorial was dedicated in 2011.

But the memorial efforts took a physical toll on Blake, 89, a WWII veteran. It was time to let others fight city hall.

About six months ago, a group began trying to persuade city officials to make the name change and install directional signs so people could find the park tucked along the river bank.

The process was dragging.

Then Skip Ward, a member of the WWII memorial board, approached a longtime friend, City Council member Jeff Longwell, about the name change.

The ball started rolling and landed in City Manager Robert Layton’s office.

There are still a few hoops to clear before it becomes official, but Layton said they are just formalities.

Council members have expressed unanimous support, he said. Their approval is expected in late February or early March.

But the process is far enough along that an exact copy of one of the signs was made and presented to Blake at his home earlier this week by Ward and Bryson Allen, board chairman of the Veterans Memorial Park of Wichita Inc.

“I’d heard rumors that something was going on in this regard,” Blake said. “I’ve been yapping about it for years, but I couldn’t get it done.”

Blake’s call for a name change had always been met at City Hall by claims it would cost too much. As it turns out, city officials said the total cost of putting up two Veterans Parkway signs and four directional signs, near the intersection of McLean Boulevard and Seneca, will be about $800.

One of the hitches to changing street names is dealing with established addresses of other businesses or residences on the street. But there’s only one address on Greenway — 339 N. Greenway St., belonging to Veterans Memorial Park.

“It should have been a rather simple process,” Longwell said. “Too often on some of this stuff, we move at the speed of government.

“The reality is Phil won’t be with us much longer. I would have hated to see that name change come out after he has passed. I knew how much this matters to him.”

The change was long overdue, said Ted Ayres, president of the World War II Memorial board.

“Greenway – a lovely name – but it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “This is somewhat a sacred park in our city. It pays homage to our veterans.

“Phil has been a champion for veterans. He’s been the illuminating light for the whole park. For the city to listen to him and his ideas, to come together and act on them, means a lot.”

Blake’s health may be failing, but he hasn’t lost his vision for the park. He sees the street renaming as a new era of cooperation with the city.

In 2009, the city made a five-year deal with the Veterans Memorial Park of Wichita to oversee the park and be the gatekeeper for anything done at the park, which now has 15 veteran memorials. That arrangement ends in 2014, but there’s more work to be done, Blake said.

Groups for two more memorials — American Revolutionary War and Operation Freedom for vets of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — are trying to raise money to add monuments. Plus, there’s hope the city will carve out an opening in the median on Veterans Parkway so drivers traveling west can turn into the park.

“The city has opened the door for cooperation,” Blake said. “We need to make sure the level of enthusiasm for honoring veterans doesn’t wane.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle